Danny Boyle has great and plainly evident fun adding twists and curves and tunnels and endless style to his modern London noir Trance, but he makes so many left turns that the film turns in on itself rather than going anywhere.
The trickiness of this tale of a big-time art heist and its aftermath generates intrigue; the visual and aural flash is seductive; and then there is Rosario Dawson, who has never been as dazzling or dominant onscreen as she is in this central performance. But in the end this head trip about thieves, treachery and memory recovery seems more ornamental than substantial, a sleight-of-hand piece that leaves you with that empty feeling. Commercial prospects internationally seem good with edge- and hip-seeking young audiences, not so hot with the rest.
At the crux of the knotty screenplay by Joe Ahearne (who wrote and directed the little-seen 2001 British TV movie of the same name) and John Hodge (who scripted Boyle’s first four films, beginning with Shallow Grave and Trainspotting) is the inability of one robber to remember where he might have left a Goya painting after the gang successfully lifts it from a tightly secured auction where “Witches in the Air” had just sold for £27.5 million (in real life, the painting resides in the Prado in Madrid).
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And why can’t Simon (James McAvoy) recall where he hid the painting? Because his cohort Francis (Vincent Cassel), suspecting betrayal, cracked him on the cranium during the job. For a film built on the premise of continual revelations of new levels of awareness, complicity, intentions and motivations, it’s not too much to disclose that the heist is an inside job perpetrated by Francis and three thugs in cahoots with auction house employee Simon, who firmly believes in his company’s motto, “No piece of art is worth a human life.”
Enduring torture before convincing Francis that he truly doesn’t know the whereabouts of the 1797 painting, which depicts a gang of evil-doers in the act of a snatching, Simon agrees to undergo hypnosis therapy in the hope of disinterring the crucial bit of memory. This takes on a comical dimension when the distractingly beautiful American therapist Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Dawson), upon discovering that Simon’s crew is listening in, insists that they join in for group sessions. Once she realizes what the stakes are, she wants an equal piece of the action.
And so it goes from there, as the film sails off in a swirl of one-upmanship, mutual suspicions, sexual competitiveness and ever-morphing personal geometry that depends most of all upon who’s thinking more moves ahead in the game than anyone. At first, Elizabeth appears to be firmly in the driver’s seat, as she alone seems to hold the key that will unlock Simon’s mind. This impression is enormously boosted by Dawson’s powerful presence; Elizabeth’s mental capacity registers as all the more formidable thanks to the personal confidence Dawson conveys, which in turn is multiplied by the palpable erotic allure she exudes at every moment to those around her.
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How the sexual equation plays out is integral to the final stretch of a film that’s paced like a DJ gradually increasing the throbbing beat and tempo of tracks before reaching a heart-pounding climax. From the point of view of visual and aural sensation, Trance goes a fair way toward living up to its name. Thanks to Boyle’s aggressive direction and Anthony Dod Mantle‘s vibrantly colored cinematography, which combine for a more deliberately consistent and glowing look than they did in Slumdog Millionaire, the film possesses a robust physicality that constantly engages, whether it’s patently artificial, as in the look of a club where some of the interrogations take place, or emphatically natural, as when Dawson strides toward the camera in a spectacularly surprising nude scene.
McAvoy and Cassel also are shot in a way that makes them pop, and both actors are completely alive to every moment of their scenes. Beat up, bloodied and beleaguered through much of the story, McAvoy’s sweaty Simon holds assorted secrets until very close to the end, while Cassel’s Francis provokes fascination as a tough guy who eventually shows other colors, particularly vulnerability. On this point, Boyle scores good laughs by subjecting Francis’ three thugs (Danny Sapani, Matt Cross and Wahab Sheikh) to therapy, in which innermost fears are revealed in quick flashback.
Trance is not precisely a case of all style and no substance, as Boyle and his writers are, in fact, trying to deepen and, in certain ways, humanize hardboiled crime drama by introducing multiple layers of meaning, emotion and insight; enough pieces of the puzzle fit that the story, if one straightens the sequencing and psychology out in one’s mind, seems to make sense.
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All the same, the overriding impression is one of a game in which the narrative tricks and amped-up pulse dominate over all other concerns. It’s as if the challenge the filmmakers set for themselves was not so much to tell a story as to discover how many clever and devious ways they could disguise and hide what’s coming, to the point that the subject seems to serve the style rather than the other way around.